The search giant today launched an app called Inbox that could force retailers to change their e-mail marketing strategies.
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Backcountry.com gets its product information through a specialized comparison site called Geardigger.com, which, like WinBuyer, splits the revenue from any click-aways that occur. "They're a pure outdoor-focused site, so their matches are higher quality than the general engines," Robertson says.
Backcountry.com and its sister site, snowboarding specialty shop Dogfunk.com, are the first two merchants to carry Geardigger's comparative information, though the company has signed up about 20 retailers to supply pricing information since its launch early this year. Founder Ben Tiffany says the cost per click is set by bidding. He hopes to have all major outdoor Internet retailers providing price feeds by the holidays.
Low prices are Aqua Superstore's claim to fame, says founder Chris Smith, so he had nothing to fear from adding the WinBuyer widget to his site. He had seen comparative prices on Amazon and Buy.com and liked the feature, but the complexity of his product lines, ranging from pool supplies to fireplaces, made it hard for him to aggregate the data he needed on his own.
WinBuyer can find comparative information on about 40% of the store's inventory, and Smith says he's seen about a 20% increase in conversions since adding the feature two years ago. But he's not sure WinBuyer is responsible, because he's also redesigned his site and changed his advertising strategy during that period.
ToolBarn.com started experimenting with comparative price information several years ago through the Google Product Search feature, at the time called Froogle, says chief technology officer Brian Mark. At first, only call center staff had access so they could see competitors' prices, but customers were so interested in the information they received from the reps that the company began to experiment with including it on product pages. "It seemed like a positive experience for most of our customers," Mark says.
But it was technologically tricky. "It was a real nightmare trying to keep all the prices updated, and the feature reduced the performance of our product pages," Mark says. Caching pages helped with the speed issue but opened ToolBarn to irritation and possible legal action from competitors for showing outdated prices.
Two years ago Mark came across WinBuyer, which simplified the process. ToolBarn isn't getting rich from the trickle of click revenue, but that's a good thing, Mark says. "We're not generating that much revenue, so we know we're not losing a ton of sales" because of the comparative price feature.
WinBuyer enables clients to edit the product feed so that only prices higher than theirs will show up, but Keren discourages the practice. "We advocate the opposite because it makes the consumers more confident about the information," he says.
Backcountry.com's Robertson says it's too soon to tell what effect onsite price comparison is having on sales. The company did see a 10% increase in phone calls from customers asking Backcountry to match competitors' prices, which the retailer does not do.
Backcountry rival Moosejaw.com took a look at onsite comparative pricing after Backcountry started doing it. Vice president of marketing Eoin Comerford's ultimate decision was "no," but a qualified one.
"There are definitely elements that make sense, " he says. "Prob-ably more than 90% of people on your product page don't convert, so if you can monetize 20% of those at 15 to 20 cents a click, and it's pure profit, it sounds attractive. The flipside is the impact on conversion. But the pro-comparison people say conversion will improve because people are going to price-compare anyway, and you're keeping them on the site."
The decision came down to brand protection. "It makes sense for Overstock because they compete 100% on price, and it makes sense for Backcountry because they position themselves as a source of gear knowledge," Comerford says. "Our strategy is that Moosejaw is a brand unto itself and offers value beyond price." Comparative pricing, he adds, "says to the customer, 'All these other folks have this same product and we don't care who you buy it from.'"
Brad Wolansky, CEO of Golf Warehouse, is even more emphatic. "I just can't get excited about this feature," he says. For one thing, much of his stock is covered by manufacturers' rules against selling below a certain price, so competitors who advertise lower prices are cheating, and Wolansky doesn't care to promote such shady dealings. For another, he's found that comparison shopping engine data for his inventory not covered by pricing rules is often inaccurate. "The vendors try to make this sound like a slam dunk, but it's not that easy," he says.
Wolansky can't do anything about the flaws of comparison shopping engines, but he's not about to promote them on his product pages. "I'm not ready to lend credibility to anyone other than me," he says. "I don't want to bring in junk, and am I going to rely on a vendor to figure out who's junk and who's not? I don't think so."
Elizabeth Gardner is a Riverside, Ill.-based freelance business writer.